Living the Christian life


By Frank Wessling

A few people live the Christian life fully. We honored one of them in Davenport last week when Hildegard Goss-Mayr received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award from Bishop Martin Amos, representing the Davenport Diocese and a coalition of community groups and schools.

Not nearly as famous as some Pacem in Terris recipients — such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu — Goss-Mayr might have had the largest impact as a peacemaker. The award is named for the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII known in English as “Peace on Earth.” The Austrian woman who received it this year has been a quiet key to nonviolent movements of reconciliation and peaceful progress affecting millions of people worldwide.

She is also testimony to the effect of peace as a principle of family life. Hildegard Mayr grew up with parents dedicated to the practice of peace and to love of every person as an image of God. They did this through the rise of German Nazi oppression and the slaughter of World War II. When the war ended in 1945, the teenage Hildegard was ready with a heart for reconciliation, ready to imitate Jesus’ redeeming action.

As she went on with her education she met a Frenchman, Jean Goss, also passionate about peacemaking, and they married. Together, they became a team traveling the world to meet with anyone and any community to help build the spirit of nonviolent action for justice and peace. Goss died in 1991 as they worked with groups in Madagascar to replace a dictator with democratic government, the kind of project that in 1984 helped shape the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines that peacefully ended the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship there.


The Goss-Mayr partnership also took its experience and educational principles into potentially violent hot spots in Africa, Asia, Latin America and across Europe. The work didn’t always succeed in the short term. Hildegard’s efforts in Rwanda did not stop the 1994 genocide there, though small groups and individuals had her training and seminars to use in later reconciliation work that goes on in central Africa.

Hildegard and Jean were also involved in efforts during the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 to restore in the church the principle of nonviolent resistance to evil. Early Christians took the example of Jesus in the Gospel literally in rejecting violence. They refused to participate in the armies and wars of the Roman Empire. This changed in the fourth century when Christianity became favored by the emperors. Gospel nonviolence was replaced by the idea that justice might require war if certain rules were followed.

Centuries of experience showed that this compromise with violence made the church more often a collaborator with emperors, kings and assorted state authorities in war-making rather than a beacon of peace. The Goss-Mayrs contended that the church needed to regain its voice for peace by returning to “Gospel nonviolence as the way to liberation.” They wanted the church to fully support conscientious objectors to military service and to declare the use of nuclear weapons immoral.

They found sympathy among the bishops of the council, at the Vatican, and in some language of the council documents. But their full agenda must have seemed too radical for most of the council fathers and too dependent on widespread heroic action to be a realistic alternative to the just war tradition.

Success in peacemaking often comes in such quiet and slow-moving ways that a world looking for dramatic and quick results fails to notice. Hildegard told a story of one such incident during her Pacem in Terris award acceptance speech. The occasion was a small gathering in Poland in 1955. It was 10 years after World War II had ended but hard feelings between German and Polish people remained. A few Poles and Germans were together with the Goss-Mayrs talking about what they might do to begin a process of reconciliation.

One Polish participant said, “What you are asking is impossible. Every stone in Warsaw has been covered by Polish blood due to the Nazi atrocities. We cannot forgive!” The Goss-Mayrs realized that the people weren’t ready yet. They proposed that the group pray the Lord’s Prayer together before they broke up. When they came to the line, “and forgive our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” the Poles went silent. After a pause, the writer who had made the “impossible” comment spoke again:

“Yes, I understand. I cannot be a Christian unless I forgive the Germans.”

The work of reconciliation went on, affecting both sides and contributing God only knows how much peacemaking energy to the years that followed.

Hildegard Goss-Mayr has quietly planted seeds of peace across the world throughout her life. Even without her full time dedication to that mission, each of us is called to do the same where we are. It’s in the Gospel. It should be in our hearts and habits.

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